“Obscenity only comes in when the mind despises and fears the body, and the body hates and resists the mind.”
― D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover
This quote from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was banned in Australia from the moment of its publication in 1928 until 1965, neatly sums up much of the debate behind banned books.
D.H. Lawrence’s tale of a young married woman who embarks on an affair with her gamekeeper was considered obscene at the time. Not only did it depict scenes of a sexual nature, there was adultery, commentary on the class system, and the whole idea that a woman might have her own desire and sexual needs.
The Australian National University is celebrating Banned Books Week this week by showing off a selection of books in the university’s libraries that have at one point been banned, either in Australia or overseas.
Library Manager of the JB Chifley Library Meredith Duncan said the main type of books Australia used to ban were those seen as obscene.
“They would have been considered sexually explicit or as having very bad language,” she said.
“It’s seen as classic literature now but was banned in Australia from 1929 all the way to 1965 as it was seen as sexually obscene, with explicit relationships.
“If you read these books now, they are so tame. We see so much worse on shows like The Bachelor that our society is more accepting of a wider range of views and experiences – in both fiction and non-fiction.”
She said you only had to consider the case of the 50 Shades series - which is completely banned in Malaysia - to see how our attitudes have changed.
“It was quite graphic but people looked at it as a bit of titillation to spice up their 20-year marriage,” Ms Duncan said.
“It should have banned for just being appalling. I started to read it but couldn’t even get to the sexy bits.”
Ms Duncan said our attitudinal changes towards sex and sexuality have shaped literary censorship over the years.
“In the introduction to one of the editions we have here of the Kamasutra, which was banned in Australia for many years, reads ‘This is only to be read by married men or medical professionals’.
“A lot of censorship revolved around the idea of women taking charge, a lot of men weren’t comfortable with that.”
As the times changed homosexuality became a hot topic. William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, which looked at homosexual and drug cultures in the 1950s, was banned as being “hard-core pornography”. It was banned from 1960 until 1971, the last work of fiction which was banned in Australia.
There are several non-fiction titles still banned in Australia including Dr Philip Nitschke's voluntary euthanasia guide book The Peaceful Pill Handbook and 1971’s The Anarchist Cookbook, a guide to making explosives and weapons and manufacturing drugs. In Queensland it is still impossible to buy a copy of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho if you are under 18, making it a restricted book, rather than a banned book.
Banned Books Week was started in the United States in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries.
It lists the top 10 books challenged in 2017 in the US, from Thirteen Reasons Why, the book the controversial Netflix series about suicide was based on, to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner because it might “lead to terrorism” and “promote Islam”, and several books which address gender identity.
Ms Duncan said most challenges came from parent and religious groups concerned about the “appropriateness” of having these books available to children in school and public libraries.
“But librarians have long been campaigners for the freedom to read,” she said.
The Best Banned Books
To Kill a Mockingbird: This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was banned because of violence and its use of the N-word.
Black Beauty: was banned in South Africa during the Apartheid simply because it had the words "black" and "beauty" in the title.
Farenheit 451: banned in Australia on the basis of "questionable themes" such as censorship, repression and religion.
Lord of the Flies: for its use of profanity, extreme violence, and statements defamatory to women.
Animal Farm: George Orwell's allegorical tale of the corruption in Soviet Russia – as told through the eyes of farmyard animals – was banned in the U.S.S.R. until the 1980s.
Lolita: Vladimir Nabokov's controversial tale of a middle-aged scholar's obsession with a 12-year-old girl was banned in the United Kingdom from 1955 to 1959 and remained forever controversial.
Catcher in the Rye: JD Salinger's seminal novel was banned in Australia, most likely for its use of vulgar language, sexual references and undermining of family values.
Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer: Henry Miller's books were banned in the United States until the mid 1960s. Both were desribed as being "notorious for their candid sexuality".